After the Eid holidays, Bangladesh will be faced with a very critical decision: How fast and how to get back to normal. It is not enough for the government to announce the modalities of reopening without the timeline. For example, an extreme version of the reopening plan could be that all of us go back to work on May 30. Even if the government issues a command, like in a dictatorship, it is doubtful that anyone will listen. If the spread of coronavirus does not slow down while we are enjoying the Eid vacation, nobody will be eager to go back to work. And then it is doubtful that big cities like Dhaka and Chittagong will be ready by May 30 to receive a massive influx of returnees. Our infrastructure, including transportation, healthcare, and supply chain will face severe stress causing the government to cancel the order!
In a nutshell, the country needs a phased-in reopening plan with strict guidelines to go through the process of easing of coronavirus restrictions. The criteria to use are basically three-fold: health, economy, "essential" services. One possibility is to announce the following hypothetical timeline:
Lockdown; Cautious Start; Vigilance; New Normal. This three-phase progression to a new normal is not cast in stone: we could have an additional phase between start and vigilance and/or one between vigilance and New Normal. The most important consideration is that the government must announce ahead of time what rules or statistics will guide the transition from one phase to the other and also how much time to allow. However, most importantly, it must specify the criteria or trigger that will cancel the transition to the next phase.
As an example, suppose that after the Cautious Start the number of deaths each week jumps by more than 25 percent, or there is a renewed outbreak in any of the clusters. The transition to Vigilance can then be delayed by a week for the entire country or for a region. It must be borne in mind that the government must use extreme caution in setting out these criteria since it will be easier to delay a transition to Vigilance than to use the "reverse gear" if it is already underway.
To illustrate this last point, let us consider another hypothetical case. If community transmission of the disease picks up pace during the Vigilance phase, and this happens just before New Normal, this might put the government in a dilemma. Inter-city bus service usually resumes in New Normal and the renewed outbreak will present a new challenge: how many passengers to allow in each bus. It is well known that long-distance buses are often filled to capacity and might become hotspots for COVID contamination. The government is better off in that situation to extend the Vigilance phase by 10 days. On the other hand, if the country moves to New Normal and there is a new outbreak with passengers carrying the virus from one district to another, a new problem will emerge. In this scenario, the government might run the risk of calling for a "Back to Vigilance" or even another lockdown.
The Eid break gives the government a golden opportunity to offer the citizens an open and transparent view of the choices we face. The economy and a sizeable segment of the population is struggling in the wake of COVID-19 lockdown. Before the Eid, and during the Ramadan, more than four thousand RMG factories restarted operation, some on a limited scale, to ensure that existing contracts with foreign buyers do not slide into default. However, there are other urgencies too. Soon after Eid, everybody who depends on earned income, will find their pocket empty and the government will find itself under immense pressure to give its imprimatur on what will inevitably happen, either by following a government phased plan or by citizens choreographing their "back to work" in organic fashion.
The pressure on the business sector, particularly those which rely on exports, is significant. Some of the managers rightly anticipated cancellations and are fearful of losing existing business contracts. Since many of our neighbouring garment production countries have already opened their economies, like China, Vietnam and Cambodia, trade diversion has emerged as a serious issue. The government itself might even be keen to see some production to resume, for PPE, essential goods, and mega projects.
One of the lessons that we learned over the last six months is that well-planned and publicly supported reopening in phases are less likely to result in accidents or re-emergence of COVID. Every country, small or large, rich or poor, have embraced the concept of a balanced and phased reopening where the concerns of the workers, businesses, and health sector professionals are meshed into a workable action plan.
In Bangladesh, while a government order stipulated that factories can only start operations with 30 percent of their workforce, and gradually scale up production, "many reopened with over 50 percent capacity. Worse, many are violating COVID-19 health guidelines by engaging 70-90 percent of their workforce." And while the workers are eager to get back to work, there is a fear voiced by many labour representatives that with more workers continuing to return to work, social distancing protocols might be thrown overboard increasing the chances of infections among workers.
In light of these concerns and in keeping with best practices seen during March-May across the globe, I will provide an outline of a plan for Bangladesh. The government, in consultation with the public health experts and business leaders, should announce within a week three major steps:
i) The name of the three (or four) phases and what will be open and which sectors will be allowed to reopen in each. Phase 1 could include RMG factories, EPZ, construction and ports.
ii) The metrics that will be monitored including, but not limited to, cases, deaths, and hospitalisations. These indicators must show a continuous improvement.
iii) The role of the national, local and municipal governments in facilitating diagnostic testing, vaccination, and contact tracing.
The government must announce its determination to enforce the norms, and steadfastly ensure that transition from each phase to the next will depend upon fulfilment of some conditions. It will help to constantly remind the public that the next stage may be paused if a new outbreak or some other measurement shows an uptick. The mantra needs to be that "Normal" is conditional upon availability of testing and vaccine.
It must also use discretion in reopening the following "nonessential" services and facilities: Dine-in restaurants and bars, theatres, shopping malls, gyms and recreation centres, hair salons, clubs, museums, sporting and concert venues, etc. Obviously, the list of nonessential businesses might vary from region to region.
The PM, in consultation with all stakeholders, would be well-advised to issue an order requiring all businesses and educational institutions to comply with defined social distancing requirements, designate six-foot distances for employees and customers in line to maintain appropriate distances with signage or tape, publicise the use of soap and sanitising products. The local administrations must in coordination with the community leaders (or MPs, if necessary) lay out a plan of action to separate vulnerable populations, and pepper the countryside with postings on how populations can best reach out for help from the local authorities.
As an option, the PM's Coronavirus Task Force might consider a theme for each phase, for example, e.g. "shotorko" or "shamajik durotyo". National leaders must remind the public each day about the do's and don'ts for each phase and regularly update provide information on the national and local metrics on testing, hospitalisations, deaths, and incidence rates.
Publicity of the PM's plan is important for its success. Each citizen must be aware which regions are open, which mass transits are available, and whether airports, transportation hubs, ferries and ports, and long distant routes are open. It is commendable that the secretary to secondary and higher education indicated that schools and colleges may have to stay closed until September if the situation did not improve.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and works in information technology. He is senior research fellow at International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank based in Boston, USA.